The 2016 premiers the Cronulla Sharks return to the finals to host the North Queensland Cowboys in the second elimination final at Allianz Stadium. These two teams have beaten each other in the past two years to move on and win the grand final, now they meet on Sunday afternoon in the first week of the playoffs, with no second chances.
LAST TIME OUT
The Sharks – in the last round of the regular season – played in Newcastle against a Knights side on their Old Boys Day. Cronulla – with one win in the previous four rounds – was eager to get a convincing win against the wooden spooners. The opening exchanges had both sides hitting hard through the middle but it was Sharks fullback Valentine Holmes crashing over from marker close to the line in the opening six minutes. The Cronulla big men were all having great performances, allowing halfback Chad Townsend to dummy and run 20 metres out of the Knights’ line to score. Soon after, a late pass by Andrew Fifita found his other prop Matt Prior to break through the middle and find young hooker Jayden Brailey supporting inside to lead 18-0. The Knights were able to hit back with Lachlan Fitzgibbon popping up from offloads and passing close to the line to get a double and finish the half 18-12. The visitors – with a penalty goal after the break and another try – were able to edge out the strong-finishing Knights, completing a tough road trip to win 26-18.
The Cowboys side was up against their Queensland rivals the Brisbane Broncos in Townsville last round. The away team was challenged with bouncing back after going down heavily to Parramatta the week before, conceding 52 points at home. The intent from the Broncos was to smash and control the middle of the park; the Cowboys edges struggled early on with a bust from Anthony Milford to link with outside centre James Roberts, who drew and passed for a scintillating first try for his partnering second rower Matt Gillett. The Broncos halfback Kodi Nikorima blistered away from defenders to give Roberts his own try from a well-placed kick back infield. Sustained pressure from the Cowboys found Gavin Cooper charging onto a ball from Michael Morgan before half-time with the scoreline 14-6. A reshuffle by Brisbane had them defending their line for the rest of the night, only scoring one more four pointer – as well as the home side scoring on the 80th minute – to win 20-10, with the Cowboys relying on other results to play finals.
The premiership winners of the last two seasons go into battle in the first week of finals. The finals rivalry these two have built will show a key battle between the lock forwards Paul Gallen and the 2016 Dally M winner Jason Taumalolo clashing to dominate the middle and steer their sides further through the playoffs.
The Sharks skipper and lock forward Gallen came off a tremendous season in Cronulla’s maiden premiership-winning year, replicating his contribution in defending the title. Gallen stepped out of the Origin arena, looking fitter than ever in 2017 and extended his contract a further year to dedicate himself to the Sharks. The middle forward has manufactured highly-respected performances throughout the 24 games, averaging 180 run metres and 31 tackles, which is incredible for a veteran, showing how dominant he can be through the forwards. To lead his side through to the second week of finals and avoid elimination, Gallen will need to contain his opposition lock and inject himself through hit ups and tackling opposition forwards from ruling the middle third. The Sharks forwards rely heavily on their leader to lay a strong platform in attack and defence as their backs are less potent than previous years, they will need support to give them enough time to make decisions and persuasively win.
The Cowboys – with a injury-corrupted season – hung onto a finals spot, finishing in eighth position. With many stars sidelined it has been the North Queensland lock Jason Taumalolo who stepped up again to show why he was the 2016 Dally M winner. The big kiwi international had another incredible showing this season, taking more hit ups and tackles. With other forwards falling to injury or concussions, Taumalolo has given his all to the Cowboys, being a pivotal reason why the side was able to collect wins after their squad was decimated weekly. The Cowboys forward has pumped out incredible statistics, averaging 203 run metres and 27 tackles; this powerhouse has been a cornerstone of the side since the likes of Johnathon Thurston and Matt Scott have been absent. Taumalolo will need to be at his best against the Sharks’ top tier forward pack; he needs to break open the game with his late footwork and ferocious hit ups to get the jump on his opposition lock Gallen so the reigning premiers’ captain and other middle forwards don’t make enough ground to punish the Cowboys.
A rivalry between these sides has been formed over the past four years, playing in elimination, semi and preliminary finals. The Sharks – now inside the back end of their title-defending season – will be hungry to prove they can go back-to-back, while the Cowboys are lucky to be in the finals thanks to a slip up by the Dragons in the last round; they will want to prove they deserve to be there. The forward battle between the two sides will be the breaking point; the key battle between Jason Taumalolo and Paul Gallen has huge potential to be an incredible spectacle within this finals series; with both having tremendous seasons, they are no doubt going to be bashing each other through the middle to get their team to dominate possession through the park and progress to the second week. The Cowboys will be valiant within the opening exchanges and could potentially lead early in the match but the execution of the veterans within the Sharks forward pack and experience of their halves in finals fixtures will cause havoc for North Queensland to contain, with the Cowboys falling off late.
Sharks by 12
“I think we probably aren’t quite as potent as last year.” – Paul Gallen
“They’ve got a lot of Origin players and rep players in their side. Jason Taumalolo’s probably the best forward in the game and it’s going to be a tough game for us.” – Paul Gallen.
“This game is the most important game for our year coming up this week and as I said against a Cowboys side that has a lot of experience, a lot of class all over the park, we have to be at our best.” – Paul Gallen
“Having played them that recently I don’t expect too much different from them, they might come up with a couple of things they think they can get us on, they scored a couple of soft tries through the middle so I imagine they’d take us on through there again.” – Coach Paul Green
“They’re a tough team, they won the comp last year, plenty of talent through their team it will be a good tough game, good forward battle, that’s what I’m expecting.” – Coach Paul Green
Sharks: Jack Bird (shoulder) and Wade Graham (calf) return from injury. Sam Tagataese’s (calf) return will be subject to a fitness test on Wednesday. Luke Lewis (shoulder) and Jayson Bukuya (ankle) are expected to play.
Cowboys: Antonio Winterstein is in doubt with a hamstring issue. Te Maire Martin has a knee issue but will play.
Changes from last week
Sharks: Jack Bird and Wade Graham return to the side, with Jesse Ramien and Kurt Capewell dropping back to the reserves.
Cowboys: North Queensland is unchanged.
Sharks: 1. Valentine Holmes 2. Sosaia Feki 3. Jack Bird 4. Ricky Leutele 5. Gerard Beale 6. James Maloney 7. Chad Townsend 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Matt Prior 11. Luke Lewis 12. Wade Graham 13. Paul Gallen 14. Jayson Bukuya 15. Chris Heighington 16. Jeremy Latimore 17. James Segeyaro 18. Kurt Capewell 19. Fa’amanu Brown 20. Jesse Ramien 21. Joseph Paulo
Cowboys: 1. Lachlan Coote 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Javid Bowen 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Michael Morgan 8. John Asiata 9. Jake Granville 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Ben Hampton 15. Coen Hess 16. Corey Jensen 17. Shaun Fensom 18. Ray Thompson 19. Kyle Laybutt 20. Braeden Uele 21. Enari Tuala
Cronulla Sharks vs North Queensland Cowboys, Sunday 10th September, 4.10pm at Allianz Stadium.
Referees: Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger